Are Young People Using Drugs More Often than They Used to?

Young hipsters at the party.

Drug and alcohol misuse at any age carries with it a severe risk not only for the user, but for those around them as well. And while drug and alcohol misuse can occur with anyone, at any time, and under just about any circumstances, this life-threatening crisis does seem to affect various demographics differently.

Take young people for example. While teenagers and young adults don’t tend to use drugs with as much frequency as those in their mid- to late-20s and older do, it does seem that when young people do use drugs and misuse alcohol, the consequences can be quite devastating. New research suggests that, after a period of a slow decline in young adult and teen drug use, the trend of teen overdoses is on the rise. Millions of young people are getting hurt and even losing their lives as a direct result of the growing drug problem.

What Are the Statistics on Young Adult and Teen Drug Use?

The National Institute on Drug Abuse released a report titled, “Teen Drug Use Is Down—But Teen Overdoses Are Up.” Throughout the mid-2000s and into the 2010s, teen drug use had been slowly declining. This decline has since leveled out, and now overdoses among teens and young twenty-somethings are starting to climb.

What does this mean?

It means that, while young people are still less likely to use drugs than adults are, the drugs that they are using today are far more dangerous than the drugs they were using even just eight or ten years ago. Hence the increase in overdoses.

 “More teens in the United States are overdosing on drugs than ever before—and more of them are dying as a result.”

According to NIDA, “More teens in the United States are overdosing on drugs than ever before—and more of them are dying as a result.” The NIDA data indicated that 2015 was the first year where researchers noted that teen overdose statistics began to increase.

Why the change? Experts believe that it’s because of the same shift in drug use that’s killing tens of thousands of other Americans. The simple fact of the matter is that more people are using highly potent synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, and it’s killing them. That same trend has made its way into teen and young adult drug use, and it has proved increasingly fatal for this age group. Even just a tiny amount of fentanyl is enough to cause a fatal overdose as fentanyl is fifty times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine. Young people who are experimenting with this substance almost always overestimate, take too much, and experience severe and even fatal consequences as a result.

From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Synthetic opioid overdose death rates increased across all demographics, county urbanization levels, and numerous states. State reports have indicated that increases in synthetic opioid-involved deaths have been associated with the number of drug submissions obtained by law enforcement that test positive for fentanyl but not with fentanyl prescribing rates. These reports indicate that increases in synthetic opioid-involved deaths are being driven by increases in fentanyl-involved overdose deaths, and the source of the fentanyl is more likely to be illicitly manufactured than pharmaceutical.”

This crucial quote tells us that the driving force behind an increase in overdose deaths among all American age groups is the increase in access to an illicitly manufactured pharmaceutical.

And that is a severe issue. We know the drug problem has become overwhelming when an age demographic that rarely experiments with hard drugs is now experiencing an increase in overdose statistics.

What Are the Implications of Youth Drug Use?

Young adult in a hospital

It’s easy enough to get very focused on death rates. And who can blame us for doing that? It’s crippling, mind-numbing even to think of a teenager or young twenty-something dying from a drug overdose, losing their life before they’ve ever really been able to live their life.

But let’s take a minute and examine the young adult and teen drug-use problem from a broader perspective.

Overdoses aside, what does it mean for the future of our country if our young adult and teen population is increasingly exposed to highly addictive and potentially fatal drugs like fentanyl? These are the future leaders of the free world—the young Americans who will one day take up the standard, assume the responsibility of running the country and, in some ways, take care of the rest of us.

How does our future look if highly addictive narcotics continue to poison our nation’s youth?

Preventing the First Exposure to Drug Use

We live in an era where all it takes is one instance of drug use to end a life. We can all agree that drug use has always been a problem in our nation’s culture, but we can also prove solely by the skyrocketing drug deaths in recent years that the drugs of today are far more lethal than the drugs of thirty or forty years ago.

Let’s look at some data from the Department of Health and Human Services. According to their research, in 2017, about 2 million people misused prescription opioids for the first time. About 81,000 people abused heroin for the first time. Divide 2,081,000 into the 365 days in a year, and you get 5,701 people using drugs for the first time every day in 2017. A few hundred of those 5,701 people are likely to be young adults and teens.

What can parents do to prevent their kids from being exposed to addictive, potentially lethal substances?

Parents Can Help Their Kids

Parents talk to their son about drugs.

Parents are any child’s, adolescent’s, teen’s, or young adult’s first line of defense against exposure to drugs. There are two things that every parent must do to help protect their children, no matter their age, from an overdose death:

  • Prevention through education. When parents educate their kids about the risks and dangers of drug use at an early age, and when parents repeatthis message as their kids grow up, when parents make this an open and relaxed conversation with their children and not a lecture, parents instill the truth about drugs into the minds and perspectives of their kids. When kids know what drugs are all about, they are far less likely to succumb to peer pressure. They are far less likely to have that first experience, that early exposure to drugs that can create a slippery slope to regular drug experimentation.
  • Rehabilitation. If a parent’s teen or young adult son or daughter ends up using drugs, regardless of the parents’ efforts to prevent that from happening, the second thing parents must do to protect their child is to get their son or daughter into a residential treatment center as quickly as possible. Rapid access to residential care and an immediate cessation of drug use is the best strategy for preventing a teen or young adult from overdosing or getting into an accident, sustaining an injury, getting into legal trouble, etc.

To close with a final word from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “In 2014, more than 1,700 young adults died from prescription drug (mainly opioid) overdoses—more than died from overdoses of any other drug, including heroin and cocaine combined—and many more needed emergency treatment.”

For a brief period of time in the earlier part of the addiction epidemic (from about 2000-2010 or so), young people seemed to have some degree of protection from the crisis. Now that is no longer the case. It’s on us to protect them, to help them, to educate them, and to see to it that they receive treatment when it is needed.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, MCAP, RAS



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.